Will there be a Lee Kuan Yew Chair at Calcutta University? I am delighted.
Mamata Banerjee herself wants it. The West Bengal chief minister said so after a meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.
It’s only fitting that Singapore is the first country she chose to visit since coming to power in 2011, ending 34 years of communist rule in West Bengal.
Singapore’s ties with Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, go back a long time.
Singapore, as we know it, would not have come into being without Calcutta.
Calcutta, now called Kolkata, used to be the capital of British India.
Sir Stamford Raffles had to go to Calcutta to bring Singapore under British rule. He needed permission from his superior, Sir Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal.
Raffles came to Singapore from Malacca in January 1819 on a ship called the Indiana. It was commanded by Captain James Pearl, who later built a house in Singapore in what came to be known as Pearl’s Hill.
The story is told in Mary Turnbull’s A History of Singapore.
Singapore was ruled from Calcutta in the early days.
As one of the three Straits Settlements – Malacca and Penang were the other two – the island was administered initially by the East India Company from Calcutta. In 1867, Singapore was elevated to the status of a Crown Colony, its governor general answering directly to London.
That’s from an article called City of the Lion written by J Norman Parmer in the Wilson Quarterly in an article called City of the Lion.
Now it’s Calcutta’s turn to court Singapore.
Mamata is seeking foreign investments, reports the Times of India.
Singapore and West Bengal will set up a joint business centre in Calcutta, reported the Press Trust of India (PTI), quoting Mamata.
“We have invited Mr Lee to visit our state. We told him about the progress made by Changi Airport in the construction of Andal airport,” she said.
Changi Airports International is involved in the construction of the new airport in West Bengal.
Mamata said: “We told Mr Lee that we want to create a Chair at Calcutta University in the name of his father and the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. We want to develop the relation between Bengal and Singapore in a more cordial manner.”
A Chair in honour of Lee Kuan Yew, who fought the communists, will be quite a change in Calcutta where the Marxists used to be in power. They renamed the road outside the US consulate Ho Chi Minh Sarani after the Vietnamese leader who fought the Americans. (Sarani in Bengali means “road”.)
Mamata dislodged the communists but has one problem.
She has not had much success attracting Indian businessmen. Ratan Tata, the former chairman of the Tata Group which owns Jaguar and Land Rover, has wrangled with her ever since she prevented him from setting up a car factory in West Bengal. The communists, who were then in power, wanted the factory to create jobs, but Mamata launched an agitation, protesting it would uproot the farmers who owned the land.
Tata eventually set up the car factory in Gujarat, whose then chief minister, Narendra Modi, is now the prime minister of India.
Mamata is loud in her criticism of Narendra Modi, too, whom she calls anti-Muslim.
She has maintained religious harmony in West Bengal, where a quarter of the population is Muslim, according to the 2001 Indian census report.
Mamata used to be an ally of the former Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, but fell out with him over economic reforms. She did not want giant supermarkets like Walmarts to enter India.
Singapore, she will be happy to see, has no Walmart.
Mamata, who came to power promising to turn Calcutta into London, has been trying to beautify the city. She will find inspiration in Singapore.
Her visit reminded me of another Bengali who came to Singapore long ago, but he is a character from fiction.
I am referring to the Ibis trilogy, a historical saga by Amitav Ghosh about the opium trade.
One of the characters is a Bengali named Neel, a landlord who is wrongfully convicted by a court in Calcutta. In those days, convicts used to be shipped off from India to work as indentured labourers in other British colonies. Some came to Singapore.
In River of Smoke, the second novel in the trilogy (the third is yet to appear), Neel lands in Singapore. He is then hired as a clerk by a Parsi merchant, an opium dealer, with whom he sails to Canton. Eventually, he winds up in Mauritius.
The Indian diaspora, which began in colonial times, continues to this day.
Mamata will go back to Calcutta, but there are others leaving to work elsewhere in India and abroad.
The author, Amitav Ghosh, was born in Calcutta and lives in New York.
Neel Mukherjee, another Bengali author born in Calcutta whose novel, The Lives of Others, is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, lives in London.
There are countless others. Many are no longer Indian.